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‘Democracy in the Park’ goes on despite Republican lawmaker opposition

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ballot counting

MADISON (WKOW) -- Voters across the city of Madison dropped off absentee ballots in city parks Saturday, despite opposition from state Republican lawmakers.

The city of Madison's Democracy in the Park initiative had been in the works for more than a month, to get more people to vote despite fears of ballots getting lost in the mail.

"So for this particular [election], I wasn't 100 percent with my mail-in ballot since you can't actually mail it in," Matt Stankey said, referring to his lack of faith in the US Postal Service to send his ballot in on time.

Voters like Stankey are why Madison city clerk Maribeth Witzel-Behl helped bring this initiative to life, saying her office had heard the same concern for months.

The event was fully funded by the city and not affiliated with any campaign. Poll workers from both major parties were out helping at different parks.

But on Friday, a lawyer for Republican Leaders sent the office a letter telling the clerk to call off the event claiming it was illegal.

Republicans are arguing the initiative is illegal ballot harvesting and allows in-person absentee voting more than a month before what is allowed by Wisconsin law.

But Madison's city attorney responded Saturday saying none of those positions have any legal leg to stand on, saying the event is entirely legal.

"The procedures that the City Clerk has established to secure ballots are equivalent to the procedures used to secure all absentee ballots, which your clients have helped to establish in Wisconsin Statutes and found to be acceptable," city attorney Michael Haas said in the letter.

Witzel-Behl also said Friday that until 27 News sent the letter to her, she hadn't received it.

Haas told the lawyer that any further questions and concerns should be relayed to him directly to avoid any similar issues.

"This tactic demeans the seriousness of your allegations and signals a desire to simply discourage participation by voters in Madison," he said.

Saturday, everyone who collected ballots was a sworn election official and they didn't give out any absentee ballots.

The event helped people get registered, while workers acted as a witness for people who needed one and looked for any problems with ballots.

"So my witness didn't sign my ballot, so I'm going to have to come back next week," Stankey said, after workers showed him the issue.

Throughout the day ballots were stored inside secure containers, the same ones used every election day to transport absentee ballots back to the clerks office.

At the end of the day, the workers counted up all of the ballots and closed the containers with tamper evident seals before sending them back to the office.

"We're going to treat the ballots as we're treating all the ballots as they come in. We are sorting them by ward and putting them in alphabetical order so they can be processed efficiently at the polling place, on election day," Witzel-Behl said.

While Republicans posed no legal threat in their letter they did say there is a risk all ballots collected Saturday will be challenged in court, and invalidated.

But Witzel-Behl said she's confident ballots will not be invalidated.

Francisco Almenara

Reporter, WKOW

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